Infectious Oddball Humor

Two years ago, as my wife lay dying (both as a manner of speaking, and rather literally, too), I wrote the following about Enya’s …And Winter Came:

The good news for Enya fans is that this disc is not all cheer and gladness.  The holidays are also an intense season of sadness for all of us at some point in our lives, as family gatherings remind us of those we have lost, and those we are in the process of losing.  Ryan’s lyrics and Enya’s music and vocals lend just the right touch of both poignancy and hope to the darkness that surrounds all that star-studded Christmas winter whiteness.

As it happens, Enya’s CD is playing as I write this review, as well.  And Jenn is still very much alive and kicking.  Woo hoo!

Yesterday afternoon, however, we were listening to Matthew West’s latest release, The Heart of Christmas—and while the above sentiment may also be expressed about West’s CD, Jenn and I actually burst out laughing at the rather absurd lyrical bats which were beating about our ears.  I mean, we really do get it: people die at all times of the year, and that includes Christmas.  How could we not?  But seriously: Do you really need to begin a Christmas song by singing, in essence, “THIS IS A SONG ABOUT DEATH. I’M GOING TO YANK TEARS OUT THROUGH YOUR EYE TEETH.  JUST SAYIN’.  MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

West will no doubt chafe at such rough treatment for something I find laudable in Enya.  But hey.  Art is in the eye of the beholder.

Bobby Coleman as Billy in SnowmenSo Jenn and I were rather flummoxed to sit down last night to screen the film The Heart of Christmas, which also features West’s song… only to discover that the screener was blank.  So instead we popped in Snowmen… and right there, up front, the narrator announces that he’s a dead kid.  Merry Christmas!

But I’m a reviewer, you know, and I only review movies I’ve seen all of, and I rarely give up on a movie once I’ve started it.  After all, I’ve watched many masterpieces that I thought were total dogs through the second act.  As one of my old church chums liked to iterate at the drop of a gospel hat, “This is not the end of the story!” 

So we stuck it out, in spite of the fact that I really didn’t want to watch a Christmas film about a dead kid… that also features snot bubbles, bullies, and a Jamaican tot in what I was thinking would amount to the film’s Jar Jar Binks role.

But really—Snowmen is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to The Wonder Years or Stand by Me since, well, the last time I watched Stand by Me!  Prior to sitting down at my keyboard a few minutes ago, I knew absolutely nothing about director Robert Kirbyson—but I would have bet those proverbial eye teeth that his original script for Snowmen was somewhat autobiographical… at least in the same sense that A Christmas Story was Jean Shepherd’s own story, or that Truman Capote wrote about himself in A Christmas Memory.

And what do you know?  I was right.  Cynthia Ellis interviewed Kirbyson a year ago for The Huffington Post:

Snowmen, writer and director Robert Kirbyson’s first feature film, is based on Kirbyson’s actual childhood in Winnipeg, Canada. … The real life circumstances behind Snowmen were somewhat tragic. There was the loss of Kirbyson’s father to Leukemia at age 13 and the death of Howard, the young son of their Jamaican friends who lived across the street. However, Kirbyson wanted to make an inspirational film, reflecting the togetherness and beauty that he found in people and in the town following these losses. Kirbyson wanted to show “the innate ability of children to find joy in all circumstances.”

So that just about kicks my cynic/reviewer’s butt.  ’Cause if anything, Kirbyson tones down the tragedy of this tale, and takes the story of Billy Kirkfield in all kinds of interesting and entertaining directions.

In short, Billy’s a bullied gradeschooler who is double-damned because he’s also being treated for cancer—and, well, kids will be kids: all they know is that Billy’s bald, sick, and dying… and they don’t want to, uh, be caught dead in his company.  But when Billy, his buddy Lucas, and his new neighbor Howard (the Jamaican lad in this otherwise snow-white tale) find a dead guy’s foot in their snowfort, they become minor (and short-lived) celebrities.  This only whets Billy’s appetite to make a lasting impression… and all this is where the titular snowmen come in.

Kirbyson lands big names such as Christopher Lloyd, Doug E. Doug (yeah, Cool Runnings!), and Ray Liotta for supporting and cameo roles—but he finds gold with his juvenile leads, who are the real stars here.  I’ve heard their names before, so I know they’re all tenured even at this young age: Bobby Coleman as Billy, Bobb’e J. Thompson as Howard, Christian Martyn as Lucas, Josh Flitter as bully Jason.  And I’ve got to say that I’ve never enjoyed the company of cinematic rugrats more.  Ever.

What’s really great, though, is that this really isn’t a Christmas film.  It’s simply a winter film for the small-town boy in all of us, one that would be great to watch anytime between Halloween and, say, Valentine’s Day—making it a viable part of anyone’s stable of Holiday films.

This is an offbeat film, but not in the over-the-top sense of a Jean Shepherd yarn.  I’m not guaranteeing you’ll like it—but it’s pretty real, it’s pretty funny, and it definitely doesn’t go where you expect it to.  In my book, that’s cinematic success.

Snowmen is rated PG for “thematic material, some rough bullying and peril, language and brief juvenile humor.”  The MPAA nails it, for once.

Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional copy of Snowmen.